Monday, January 18, 2010

What The Fuck Do I Know

I won “Youngest Sigma Deltan” in 1989. It was at an alumnae function in the Mondragon House. I was newly initiated and inducted, 16 going on 24 (a good friend would later say, “24 going on 88”), a freshman when freshman weren’t allowed to join sororities, and I won P2,500. Which of course my new ka-batches and I spent at once on beer and perhaps some ghastly pulutan like sizzling red hotdogs and onion slices awash with ketchup and soy sauce.

Joining the papers and learning the ropes from my ka-batch Dinah when I was 22, I was once again the youngest in my circles: in the office, I was the youngest desk editor; outside work, I was the youngest in our weekend San Lorenzo lunch group—Tio Paeng and Tina, Richard and Dinah, Johnet and Girlie, Big Richard and Tiffin. Big Richard called me “Baby Batch” (though he isn’t a brod, or a sis). A few years into publishing, and still I was still being called “Baby”: Lulu Tan Gan, in a thank you note to our team in Mega Magazine, called me the “baby writer”; many years later, when I was already editor in chief of Working Mom, Jun de Leon called me “baby editor.”

And so on. While, on the outside, I used to say that I wanted—needed!—to look older, especially in an industry that valued seniority (ah, how that has changed since!), inside I reveled in the deceptive, youth-giving qualities of my puffy cheeks (which also make me totally unphotogenic). Good genes have given me the gift of looking several years younger, in spite of all the abuse I’ve given to my body and my sanity, but wiser eyes have seen the truth. I remember a blind masseuse once asking me how old I was. I think I was 26 at the time, confused with my spirituality and running my health to the ground by subsisting on alfalfa sprouts and tomatoes and smoking a pack a day. She said that her hands told her my body seemed like it was 60 years old.

During a recent dinner with my ka-batches, I handed some photos over to Mireille to scan for our 20th year birthday presentation. “Gina, di ka nagbago,” Milen says. “Thank you,” I answer, but the thrill is gone. The smile may be the same, the way I flip my hair over my shoulder for a photo, but I know I’m no longer young. The chick is now a chicken. An inahen. The writer of a recent article on the demise of The Oarhouse saw through my ruse. “A black-clad girl in her thirties comes to the bar to order drinks,” he writes. “She gives Wilson a hug. ‘Saan ka na ngayon?’ she asks. Wilson just shrugs. ‘Dito-dito lang muna,’ he replies.”

That black-clad girl is me.

Nothing radical has changed about my appearance—and in fact, now, thanks to a more prudent approach to health and vice, and no longer agonizing over whether I should remain Catholic, I have the energy of someone in their 20s when it comes to partying and staying up late (one early morning during closing an issue of our magazine, I kept wide awake while the rest of them slept at their desks; I wondered if I had killed them with exhaustion).

But history has seeped into my skin. My face sags with the weight of it when I stare long and close enough into the mirror; my hips and thighs groan against the lie that a girdle tries to control. No matter how perkily and carefree-ly I try to walk (a gait I try to copy from Hindy Weber-Tantoco, already in her mid-30s but with blessed with a girlishness of speech and bird-thin bones), my stride reveals the sense of purpose of one who has no time to wait, because the luxury of being untroubled can only belong to the young.

Several times over the past year, I’d tried to reclaim it, this feeling and belief that I would always be (mis)taken for being younger than I chronologically am, but found myself shuddering at the illusion. The idea that I’m the “baby”—the notion of being infantile, unsullied—doesn’t sit comfortably with me anymore.

In a twisted way, it hurts, accepting that I’m almost 40, no longer a “baby”, and that I should “grow up.” Because what else am I doing as I raise my children, hold down my job, and run my household? But I embrace it as well, this power I now have, to share my opinions and feelings without the fear of being judged; this (at most times) certainty of self, this humor and indifference toward the kind of criticism that can slay fresher, more fragile souls. This screening of outside stimuli to make our blood race as if we were 20 again; the kinds of experiences chosen with more discernment, as they get distilled more and more, until only the essential is left. An extreme way of putting it would be how Marge Piercy once put it, “My idea of Hell is to be young again.”

The folly of being young is thinking you are immortal; powerful forever, and repeatedly absolved by life and karma. The folly of being young is thinking you know it all.

Of being afraid of not knowing.

Which is why, I invite us all to ask ourselves, in all humility and understanding: “What The Fuck Do I Know?”

January 18, 2010
12.56 am

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My 37th Birthday

My mother was 33 when she relocated to the States, my papa, Ali, and I in tow. She was going back to University of Wisconsin, where she had taken up one of her many MAs a couple years before, to finish her doctorate. I was six, Ali was three. My papa had a fuller head of hair and liked KISS (or at least attended a concert of theirs once). I marveled at the swings with rubber seats. Ali was a cry baby who I had to save several times from bullies on the jungle gym. And I loved climbing trees—until an Indian (Bombay, not American) yelled at me from the window of his second floor apartment. “You! You! Get down!” I was perched on a branch of a birch, and couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from. I turned and saw him glaring at me. Shocked and scared, I clambered down. The next day, I ran back to the tree and—horrified—saw that the branch had been sawed off. In its place was the black pitch they used to keep invading insects out. It was my first heartbreak.

My mother was 37 when we all came back to the Philippines. Her father had passed away, “Papang”, and we all had to come back home. She got a job in NEDA. I remember running my hands up her stockinged legs, the dignified suits she wore, the brown briefcase she brought to work. It was still only Ali and I who existed then—B-Jon came several years later--and Mom enrolled us in JASMS, even if I had wanted to go to Maryknoll, on account of my best Filipina friend back in the States raving about the school. Thank God I went to JASMS. On my first day, I remember literally hiding behind Mommy’s skirt while Mrs. Chan asked me, “What’s your name?” “Regina,” I answered. But she heard only “Gina” and that abbreviation has stuck ever since.

I turned 37 last Saturday. Mom booked us a villa at Mimosa in Clark, while she and Papa had a room in nearby Holiday Inn. A villa to accommodate my family, so very unlike hers and Papa’s during their time: twin boys, a pubescent daughter, a yaya on her fourth month of pregnancy. We check in a little after lunch, and Simone said she was hungry. She’s always hungry these days, my tall gangly daughter who I know, with all the kindness and understanding in her heart, sometimes quietly tolerates her neurotic mother. “She’s an old soul. She’s the mom and you’re the daughter,” someone told me when Simone was barely a year old. Maybe. Who knows.

I want to take them to Zapata’s, the authentic Mexican along Fields Avenue, because C is too expensive for my budget. So we drive, drive, past the girlie bars, past the spanking new Lewis Grand Hotel, only to find that Zapatas has been turned into a Thai restaurant, with working girls already outside, waiting for early customers. The twins are beginning to get restless; Sim’s in a bad mood. “Ok,” I say. “You want food? All sorts of food? Let’s go to Margarita Station. But Ma, don’t be shocked, ok?”

All Mama is concerned about is if they serve Asian cuisine. “Oh God, they have everything,” I assure her.

The Margarita Station is, of course, one of the oldest joints on Fields Ave. It’s home to dodgy old GIs and foreigners of every race. Girls working and non-working alike converge there to eat, play pool, look for a little boom-boom. Locals eat there, as well, with their little ones. So I figured it was, in my estimation, “family friendly.”

As we drive by the entrance – a shabby screen door – Mama gasps. “Is this it?”
From outside, one can see lumpy middle-aged foreigners drink at the window bar. “But Mommy,” Sim says, “there are creepy men inside.”

Creepy-looking men aside, the Margarita Station is also known for its friendly waitresses and service. No judgments are made there, as the case should be anywhere. Inside, Marco and Mateo gape at the women and men playing pool. “I want to learn billiards,” says Mateo, awed.

My mother is fascinated. “I didn’t know about this place,” she says. “All I know are the places inside the base.”

The driver, is of course, delighted. “Do you know this place?” my mother asks him. “Do you come here? I want to bring my friends here.” It takes her 15 minutes to study the vast menu. Simone has gotten over her creepy guy shock, and asks me, out of the blue: “Mommy, why are there pedophiles?”

I look around if there are any within shooting range. There aren’t. She’s asking because one of the freshmen from her school is dating a senior, and, because kids can be extremely cruel, the senior has been branded a pedophile. “Pedophiles are sick in the head,” I say. “They think differently, and need help.”

So we eat, take photos. The twins and Mama explore the souvenir shop. I tell my mom about the old bar ritual: “He who rings this bell in jest, buys a round of drinks for all the rest.” It’s the first time she’s heard it.

After lunch, she buys two pairs of ballroom dancing trousers from the shop next door, amazed at the dirt cheap prices. We drive past the other bars on our way back to the villa, back inside the base. I explain to Mama that as we drive further down, the places get dodgier and dodgier. Still, I urge Simone to look out the window and see what kind of world exists outside hers. To my surprise, Mama agrees: “Yes Sim, take a look so you won’t be like Mama.”

The twins don’t look out—they’re folded in the back seat, heavy with slumber.

My Papa arrives from Manila in the afternoon, but it’s only on the next day that we get to talk. It’s after lunch in Shanghai Palace, beside the old casino on MacArthur Avenue. “We used to come here in the ‘60s,” he says, “and watch acts like Pepe Smith before they became big.” Where? “Harrison. Vietnam War years. Everyone was on drugs then.”

As we drive from the restaurant, he continues. “We had a brod named Bombing Nepomuceno. His mom was the mayor and his dad was congressman. He’d invite us over for the weekend; we’d choose what car we wanted to take. It was always the Jaguar X36. We’d check into the Oasis and no one ever wanted to go home.”

Before we turn into the road leading to NLEX, he adds, “and Baluga (the nickname we have for one of his younger brods, Tito Val) and I would come here to buy Bose stereos even before Bose was known in Manila. We had those cannon-type speakers before anyone had them.”

And more. I love it when Papa reminisces like this. He comes alive, his speech is clear and confident, and you almost ache for his longing of years past. “There was this brod, a close friend of your Uncle Freddie’s, he used to drive an Impala. One day he saw us on the road. Kaway-kaway siya. Ayun, nahulog sa bangin.”

Marco and Mateo, eager to get back home and to their plants and Gizzard and Plants vs. Zombies, chant non-stop: “Clark never ends! Clark never ends!”

But it did. And so did the weekend of my 37th birthday.

Jan 12, 2.09 a.m.